Last week, I published an article here called “Anarchy, Leadership and NVDA” in which I described how both the NVDA screen reader and the recent NVDA Remote Access projects were able to find funding through non-traditional sources. I discussed the challenges such efforts were causing for the traditional access technology vendors and how, through a democratic and anarchistic system, blind people took responsibility for financing the technology we need and desire.
A few weeks ago, I attended the CSUN Conference on Disability and Technology in San Diego. There, a handful of the presentations I attended demonstrated technology and expressed ideas that cracked my affected cynicism and, for different reasons, impressed me greatly. Unlike NVDA and the crowdsourced free software projects I’ve discussed recently, these projects demonstrated leadership funded and developed through more traditional channels. Thus, leadership is emerging from the mob but, it’s important to recognize, that at CSUN we witnessed a number of important and interesting developments from academia, the standards community and the corporate world. Sadly, none of the interesting developments came from the traditional access technology companies.
Last year, I wrote tens of thousands of words largely about out-of-the-box accessibility on Android beginning with “Testing Android Accessibility: I Give Up” (the single most popular article I published in 2014), followed by a series of articles on the deplorable accessibility on that platform, a series of articles on Apple’s deteriorating accessibility concluding with, “The Macintosh User Experience” (coincidentally the one of the least popular articles we published in 2014), which described how the out-of-the-box accessibility delivered by Apple just ain’t good as it used to be. Thus, as I spent most of a year writing about Apple and Google and, to a lesser extent, Microsoft, I skipped their CSUn presentations and, instead, focussed on topics, presenters and companies doing things I found interesting and innovative.
One observation I did make about CSUN in general this year, it was my first since 2012, was that a whole lot of the demoes I attended and a lot of the hallway buzz I heard was about NVDA. In the past, virtually all presentations that used a screen reader, used JAWS. At CSUN 2015, more than half of the presentations I heard showed with NVDA and/or VoiceOver. I think this is another indication of the trend toward free and no cost screen readers but, remember, this is an anecdote based purely on my observations and your experience may have been different.
It was 4:20, a time I like to celebrate, on Friday afternoon, the final slot for CSUN presentations. It was the forth or fifth presentation of the week on math accessibility but the room was filled with tired but enthusiastic attendees as this was the math presentation of the week. For me, as we will see, it had personal implications far in excess of the terrific technology to be presented.
Sina Bahram, PhD candidate at NC State, president of Prime Access Consulting (PAC) and a close personal friend of mine since he was 19 years old took the stage with David MacDonald of CanAdapt Solutions and CB Averitt of Deque Systems.
I was there to hear Sina and his demo of MathPlayer with NVDA.. I had been following this project for far longer than all but two people in the room, Neil Soiffer of Design Science and I could have known.
I first saw a super secret demo of the technology when Sina brought it to my Cambridge, Ma home last August. I was notably impressed as he showed me how different fields in mathematics were spoken with different rules as appropriate to their specific vocabulary as he navigated through what, for me at least, were pretty complicated equations. I wanted to write an article about it then but my “friend DA” with Sina kept old Gonz’s mouth shut. In my home that afternoon, Sina also told me a story about MathPlayer’s difficulty getting Freedom Scientific to support it in JAWS. In brief, Sina and Neil met with a pair of FS executives at CSUN 2014 and were told that FS saw no business case for supporting math, an obvious lie as they would instead include their own proprietary and entirely inferior solution when they released JAWS 16 in September. At the same CSUN, Sina met with Mick Curren and Jamie Teh, the guys behind NVDA and, on his plane ride home to Australia, Jamie had written the code and MathPlayer was demonstrable with the free solution.
Sina’s demo, while impressive, only showed the tip of the iceberg of this powerful new way for blind users of NVDA and, soon, Window-Eyes to be able to study math. Sometime in the next month or so, I will be posting an article here specifically about progress in mathematics for people who use screen readers that will include an in-depth description of MathPlayer with NVDA as well as a discussion of MathMLCloud from our friends at Diagram Center. As that article will contain specific details about these and perhaps some other technologies, it’s one that will take a lot more effort than a standard article here so, while it’s in progress, it’s going to take a while to get right.
In addition to enjoying watching a friend I’ve had for more than a decade do an impressive presentation, my personal connection to this project made me feel a bit emotional. When the panel completed the formal portion of the event, my hand was the first to be raised. I didn’t have a question but, rather, a statement I cleared my throat and said, “As I was the first ever Freedom Scientific executive to have been forced to tell Neil Soiffer that we wouldn’t support his work in JAWS, I just want to thank Sina, Neil, Mick, Jamie and everyone else involved in this effort for ending what’s been more than a decade of personal shame.” That brought a round of applause and I felt so happy that, after more than a decade after we had commissioned a specification to build a MathML solution into JAWS, Design Science, Sina, NVDA and soon Window-Eyes will be delivering it to their users.
As this is the article on CSUN and not on math itself, I also want to recognize Sina for the complete classiness of his presentation. While it focussed on his own work on MathPlayer and the demonstration was done with NVDA, the only screen reader that fully supports it today (the Window-Eyes solution is still a beta), he also showed how a JAWS user could do the same with the FS solution in JAWS 16. The really classy part of Sina’s presentation was that he only showed the good parts of the JAWS solution when he could have bashed it for any number of reasons, most notably, the vast superiority of the NVDA/MathPlayer combination. Sina is a class act, I’m Gonz Blinko so I can say such things.
If you’re interested in exploring math in NVDA, follow the links above to the Design Science site, grab the software and give it a ride.
This piece is starting to sound like a list of Gonz’s personal friends as the second presentation I’d like to feature was the one done by old buddy and fellow Freedom Scientific throw away, Marco Zehe. If you don’t know Marco and you get the chance to meet him, you’re probably already friends, you just don’t know it yet as he’s one of the sweetest, most charming, delightful and smartest people you’ll meet around this business. If you use a screen reader and enjoy the fabulous accessibility in the FireFox browser , Marco is the guy you have to thank for it.
At CSUN 2015, Marco showed the world the accessibility features of FireFox OS, a mobile operating system designed to run on low cost handsets. The beauty of this solution is that this entire operating system is based in an expanded purpose version of the FireFox browser, hence, it inherits the accessibility features we already enjoy with the FireFox browser on Windows with NVDA and TalkBack on Android.
From what I gleaned from Marco’s presentation is that all of the controls that a FFOS app will need (the kinds of standard controls available on all OS), has their accessibility components built in and turned on by default. As the entire OS is designed to run on low end hardware, it is less likely that application developers will spend a lot of time and effort creating custom and inaccessible controls as they will also require additional memory and more horsepower from a low cost and low powered processor. I predict that, when it’s ready for general distribution, mobile devices running FFOS will jump into second place behind only iOS as the most accessible mobile devices on the market. And, unlike the one definite plus that Android can boast over iOS, it’s also going to be very inexpensive.
As Marco was showing off the screen reader that will come with FFOS, I asked the wise crack question,” Does it use circles, right angles and other weird gestures?” and, before Marco who had started to laugh could answer, a few others in the audience, in parody of the TalkBack interface, shouted out, “six finger complex polygon!” “ four finger irregular rhombus!” and the laughter spread. Marco, of course, said, “No, no weird gestures.”
While I avoided the big corporations who make AT products and the AT vendor presentations themselves, I did attend two from major American corporations and one of them, [Target], the retail giant put on a truly impressive one on Thursday morning. It’s presenter, Laurie Merryman of Target, is not an old friend of mine, we hadn’t met before the event so this little report may show less of a personal bias than the first two.
What made the Target Presentation so different and so interesting was that they weren’t discussing testing their technology against WCAG and other standards, they already had done that work. Target is doing actual human factors, true usability testing with screen readers so as to not only provide an according to Hoyle accessibility experience but to take the experience to a next level, they’re intent in this effort is to make Target a pleasant shopping experience for people with disabilities. Laurie’s presentation included a description of how they use a program called Loop 11 to monitor each keystroke or gesture a user employs to complete a task and how the software includes other features to gauge user experience. One amazing fact is that the Loop 11 testing tool is also fully accessible and can be used with a screen reader.
Recently, I’ve been working on a fairly large proposal mostly unrelated to accessibility for one of my clients. This effort has forced me to read a lot of research about non-visual literacy. Of more than 600 papers published on this subject in the fifty year period between 1963 and 2013, only 22 had a sample size over 20 participants and only three of those studied more than 30 individuals in its sample. When Laurie said that they had just started this effort at Target and, thus far, had “only 60” participants, I about jumped for joy. I raised my hand and asked, “You’re obviously gathering data to improve the Target customer experience but you are also gathering a lot of information on generic screen reader use, would you guys be willing to share that information with the rest of us?” As US corporations tend to be pathologically secretive and proprietary about data, even data that has little specific value to them, I expected she would say no, instead, to my surprise, she said, “That’s a great idea.” and one of her colleagues shouted, “That’ll be our 2016 presentation.” To a data junky like me, there was no better possible answer.
Data Visualization and SVG
I tend to avoid the social events at conferences. While I write boldly, I’m actually pretty uncomfortable in crowds, I do poorly with small talk, I often get too passionate about a topic to remain polite and I’m happiest when in small groups. Thus, when I decided to attend the Diagram Center reception at CSUN, i was making an exception. I was comforted by knowing that I knew a lot of the people there and my long relationship with Benetech, the parent organization of Diagram Center, I also knew I would have some old friends around.
While I got to meet and talk to a lot of people doing interesting things at this reception and, of course, as I mentioned above, I’m enthusiastic about the Diagram Center’s MathMLCloud project( more to come on it in the upcoming math article), the I got to meet and was tremendously impressed by a W3C guy named Doug Schepers.
My friends Mia and Mallory led me to one of the bedrooms attached to the suite where the reception was held. A few others were already gathered there and my dog, thinking he was at home, jumped onto the bed and took a nap. At the desk, sat Doug Schepers and he was going to show us a prototype of a talking system for SVG based charts and tables. Doug’s prototype used a self voicing interface as he hasn’t found a screen reader to support it yet but it was truly impressive.
Doug’s approach to this problem comes from his background in standards. His work proposes a set of additions to Aria for describing data visualizations. His demo showed only a single bar chart but the potential for this, in a standards based manner, is terrific.
My personal attachment to Doug’s work was that, as VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific, it was my idea and Joe Stephen’s work that got charts and graphs talking in Microsoft Excel. What Doug’s solution provides are the semantics that make reading such information far nicer. I sincerely hope we can find a way to get this experimental code into NVDA to test it while Doug works to get this extension accepted by the people who set the Aria standard.
A big part of going to CSUN is having the opportunity to meet and hang out with both old friends and friends we hadn’t made yet. First and fore mostly, I had a wonderful time spending time with and getting to know fellow 3MT member, Mallory Van Achterberg, one of the smartest, kindest and absolutely most fun people you’ll ever meet in this business. It was a pleasure to meet Karl Groves, a guy whose work I’ve admired but never got the chance to meet in person and a person with whom I’d have probably been friends as we spent a lot of time in the same places with a bunch of the same people, separated only by the time dimension. Donal Fitzpatrick, did a terrific presentation on his on going research into a system that will, using haptic cues, provide blind musicians in an orchestra with the information that the conductor does visually and having lunch with Donal afterward was great. As ever, it’s always nice to see the lovely Laura Legendary, even if only for a few fleeting moments. I can’t list everyone whom I had the pleasure of meeting and talking to but, suffice it to say, I’m grateful for every moment of your time.
I want to thank Steve Sawczyn and Paul Adam for the work they did on our “Dueling Mobile panel. It was originally my idea, I suggested the panel in a blog article I wrote here last summer but Steve and Paul did all of the real work. I got to make a few wisecracks and MC the event but Paul and Steve did all of the heavy lifting. You can find our HTML Obstacle Course on Paul’s web site and you can use it to test your mobile accessibility as well.
Lastly, I would like to thank all of you who came up to me to tell me that you read and enjoy the blog. I don’t ask for donations so but I do gain a lot of satisfaction when readers find me and tell me they enjoy my work. This blog would be a lot less interesting if it wasn’t for the readers who help keep our hit count up, write comments and tweet out the links. I appreciate all of your support.
While we may be experiencing an uprising of democratically run and user funded leaders emerging, there is a lot of important work happening in the more traditional areas in accessibility as well. I see no leadership from the traditional AT players but academia, independent ventures, the standards community and the corporate world are doing some very interesting things. This article is by no means complete, lots of other interesting developments are happening all of the time and I’m glad to be an observer as we all get to watch the technology move forward.
DP Lyons says
Thanks for a great post Chris. I envy you for your work and all of the elbows you rub with. Hats off to all of your work and thanks for a very informative run through your San Diego experience.
Jacques Stassen says
Thanks Crhis, for a once again, well thought out, meaningful post. I don’t always take the time to post comments, but I sure find your frankness refreshing. You give credit where it’s due, yet you don’t hesitate to point out unacceptable practice, or the the unfounded arrogance of some companies or individuals. The guys from NVDA deserve all the praise you give them, I’m not only impressed by what they do, but use NVDA exclusively for Windows access. In short, keep up the good work, and even more importantly, never stop writing. Your input is appreciated.
Joe Orozco says
Best recap of CSUN I’ve come across. Thank you sir!
Laurie Merryman says
Thank you Chris for attending and for your kind words here regarding my presentation. Can’t wait to share out our results as we progress in 2015 with our efforts!
David Andrews says
It is interesting that you mention user testing. One of the best presentations I have ever seen at CSUN, and I have been going on and off for 25 years, was a presentation by Fidelity. They did user testing of their site, and were able to identify and categorize how blind people navigated an unfamiliar web site. It was interesting and enlightening.